Race, Class, and Music in The Great Gatsby

Carrie Allen Tipton (Houston, TX)

Warner Brothers film trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), featuring multiple musical excerpts (starting off with André 3000 and Beyoncé performing “Back in Black”).

The Great Gatsby turned ninety last year. What does its antihero—floating dead on a bloody mattress in the pool outside his nouveau riche palace, a casualty in some indirect sense of the American dream—have to say to us? Does his tale offer any relevant cultural critique to a nation nearly a century removed from its publication? We must think so, because we keep revisiting it: in English classrooms, in the iconic 1974 Robert Redford film, in John Harbison’s opera of the late 1990s, and in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film. The musical dimensions of these iterations loom large; Gatsby, shot through with references to the popular music of the jazz age, invites sonic treatment in a way that most of the American literary canon does not. Luhrmann’s film in particular opens an interpretive window onto how music functions rhetorically in the novel.

Critics hammered Luhrmann for his movie’s anachronistic soundtrack, of which the trailer featured above gives us a taste. Produced by Jay-Z, the soundtrack contained a jazz-inflected mixture of rap, pop, R&B, and rock covers and original compositions. Some criticism seemed to assume that in The Great Gatsby, author F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned music mostly for historical veracity, implying that a soundtrack failing to replicate the sounds of the jazz age was fundamentally unable to elucidate the novel’s themes. It turns out, however, that music in the novel serves as much more than just historical wallpaper. Read critically, Fitzgerald’s use of music delineates and interrogates class and racial boundaries, particularly surrounding the character of Gatsby himself.

The novel is the story of Gatsby’s failed quest to legitimize himself to upper-crust American society, largely through obscuring his real past through fabulous displays of wealth and shadowy, mostly fabricated allusions to a grand family background and an Oxford education. Gradually, readers learn that Gatsby actually hails from the unfashionable Midwest and is the son of a poor German immigrant farmer. His real name, James Gatz, even hints at potential (though unstated) Jewish ancestry. The upper-class white characters surrounding Gatsby, somehow sensing his outsider status, focus relentlessly on attempting to figure out his ethnic identity and family background; their continued speculations about who he “really” is draw the reader into Gatsby’s mystique. 

Part of the way Fitzgerald highlights Gatsby’s outsider identity is through references to Tin Pan Alley songs popular in the early 1920s. As T. Austin Graham points out, Fitzgerald stood at the forefront of modernist authors who “soundtracked” their novels via frequent mentions of popular songs. Six such moments exist in Gatsby:

  • The Sheik of Araby” (composed 1921; associated with popular Rudolf Valentino film The Sheik); sung by two girls as Gatsby and Daisy’s romantic past is first described;
  • The Love Nest” (contrasting humble and palatial quarters) and “Ain’t We Got Fun” (jokes darkly about childrearing amidst poverty); sung by one of Gatsby’s ubiquitous houseguests while Gatsby shows Daisy around his mansion;
  • Three O’Clock in the Morning” (1919 waltz by Julián Robledo); played by orchestra at a Gatsby party;
  • Beale Street Blues” (composed 1912); mentioned as a sonic memory of Daisy’s youth in Louisville, Kentucky; and,
  • “The Rosary” (composed 1917); whistled by Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim (with whom Gatsby is professionally associated, to his great social detriment) as he makes excuses for skipping Gatsby’s funeral.

These Tin Pan Alley songs, all of which somehow articulate class or racial boundaries, denote segments of the American population that in the 1920s would have been considered outsiders, of lower-class status, and largely excluded from achieving the American dream. “The Sheik,” dripping with exoticism and Orientalism, centers on a stereotyped and rapacious Arabic male. “Beale Street Blues” emerged from the cultural context of southern Black music making. “The Rosary” denoted a religious ritual practiced by Roman Catholics (and in the novel is whistled by a Jew). Even the “Three O’Clock Waltz” carries some association with a non-white, exotic Other—its Argentine composer, Robledo, was heavily associated with the tango. “Love Nest” and “Ain’t We Got Fun” both articulate the financial differences between social classes, albeit in comic terms. In their narrative contexts, briefly summarized in the list above, all the songs are somehow linked with Gatsby himself. These songs don’t connect the mysterious Gatsby to any single ethnic or cultural identity. Rather, in their aggregate signification of identities considered un-white or lower-class in American culture, especially during the xenophobic 1920s, they sonically signify Gatsby’s status as an outsider.

The songs point in particular to anxieties surrounding Gatsby’s unclear racial and ethnic background, articulated repeatedly by the wealthy white social set by whom Gatsby so desperately longs to be accepted. Literary scholar Barbara Will describes their anxieties as the “specter of a beleaguered whiteness,” evidence of the “American isolationist fervor” that characterized American arts and politics in the 1920s. Will argues that embedded in the historical context of American concerns about immigrants and other cultural outsiders, Jay Gatsby himself codes as “not quite white,” of indeterminate racial and ethnic origin. For Will, Gatsby’s connection with Wolfsheim and his birth surname Gatz (which echoes the indubitably Jewish “Katz”) especially mark him as non-white. Fitzgerald scholar Keith Gandal extends this interpretation to encompass Gatsby’s class status as well, explaining that in the 1920s, “‘new money’ was often a euphemism for ethnic as well as class inferiority.” Gatsby’s class and ethnic identity—slippery, indeterminate, but certainly un-white—is refracted through these soundbytes of contemporary popular songs.

Fitzgerald mentions a fictional piece of music in the novel only once. During the glittering party scene at which we first “meet” Gatsby, he requests that the orchestra play Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World, “which attracted so much attention at Carnegie Hall last May.”1 Fitzgerald’s orchestra leader continues: “‘If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.’ He smiled with jovial condescension, and added: ‘Some sensation!’ Whereupon everybody laughed.”2 Jazz History is probably a fictionalized reference to the premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra at Aeolian Hall in 1924, a year prior to the novel’s publication. (Baz Luhrmann actually used Rhapsody in Blue for this scene in the film.) As Carol Oja describes, Whiteman’s 1924 concert was part of his larger and very public project to “legitimize jazz”: “he was a self-described ‘jazz missionary’ who sought to give the music a ‘respectful hearing’ in America.” Whiteman’s effort to elevate jazz—to turn it into a social climber—is connected via the fictional Tostoff composition to Gatsby himself, who attempts to trace exactly the same trajectory from “low” roots to a high social status.

Fitzgerald’s jazz-age musical references—real and fictional—resonate with the novel’s broader critique of the merciless American fixation on both class hierarchy and ethnic identity. Given this, let’s return to Luhrmann’s 2013 soundtrack. In my view, the soundtrack actually does manage to convey a similar critique (not with each individual song, but at the generic or stylistic level) with popular music postdating the jazz age. It does so by leaning heavily on rap/R&B music and artists, which represent the genres of music that in our own time performs the political and discursive work of interrogating race- and class-based identity. Like much of the jazz-inflected popular music of the 1920s, rap music embedded in its context of Hip-hop culture emerged from Americans of color marginalized by the double burden of race and class.

Film trailer for Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby feat. Jay-Z’s “$100 Bill.”

Like the novel itself, Jay-Z’s “$100 Bill,” heard in the above film trailer, makes reference to cultural themes and icons implicated in the darker side of the consumer-capitalist American dream of upward social mobility and economic success. The song’s narrator cites drug use to cope with the pressure of chasing this dream, politicians corrupted by money, stock market crashes, troubled celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, and gun violence, all presented as part of the price paid by those who pursue the dream of fantastic wealth and the social capital such a lifestyle promises. In reality, in the 1920s and now, this dream is actually an attainable reality for a very select few, and the individual songs cited in the book and the musical genres employed in Luhrmann’s film both make that point. Like jazz, rap music has traced an economic and cultural trajectory from the margins to the mainstream, always hamstrung by cultural critics’ gnashing of teeth over its supposed moral degradation and want of social respectability. As Guthrie Ramsey succinctly puts it in his summation of the late twentieth century as the “Age of Hip Hop”:

“Black musical styles show up routinely as topics in the culture wars. Politicians of all persuasions have used the music to score rhetorical points … some comment on rap music’s nihilism or debate whether it is music at all. Critics haggle over whether jazz is enjoying a renaissance or is a dead art. The demise of the American family, the angst of black middle-class citizens, juvenile delinquency, inner-city decline … and many other indictments have been saddled to the back of black popular music.”  

The central question that animates our national history is, arguably, “Who counts as an American?” The answers to this question, forged in different legislative, social, and cultural forms in various eras, constitute our national fabric. Fitzgerald’s novel hinges on the asking and answering of those questions, at times with the popular music of the jazz age. By using rap music in his film almost a century later to foreground the class- and race-based social anxieties that permeate the novel, Luhrmann succeeds in evoking some of the novel’s most important themes. Yes, Gatsby still speaks—sings, even—a cautionary song to a nation that has scarcely evolved since the 1920s beyond organizing its collective life through a strange and ineffectual mash-up of meritocracy and aristocracy. Happy birthday, Gatsby. I hear you talking to me.

For Discussion

Find information online about the 2013 Great Gatsby soundtrack. Read some lyrics; listen to some pieces; read about the artists involved with the soundtrack (especially its producer, Jay-Z). How do these songs and the artists associated with direct our attention to issues of class, ethnic, race, or even gender/sexual identity in contemporary American life?

1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925/reprinted 1986 (NY: Collier-MacMillan), 50.

2 Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s